Channel Tunnel

What is the Channel Tunnel?

The Channel Tunnel, also known as 'Euro-tunnel' (or 'Chunnel'), is a series of three tunnels (two carrying, one service tunnel) linking the southern coast of England near Folkestone to the northern coast of France outside Calais.

The tunnels are 50km long, with an undersea section of 39 km, making it the longest undersea tunnel system in the world.

The Euro-tunnel project was privately financed and continues to be privately operated. The estimated £4.9 billion total cost of the tunnel turned out to be a serious miscalculation, as the cost ballooned to almost £12 billion by the time it opened in 1994, more than double the original estimates.


The idea of a Channel Tunnel was first explored by French mining engineer, Albert Mathieu, who formulated early designs for Napoleon in 1802.

The first attempt to make a cross channel link was in 1880 when the Beaumont and English tunnel boring machine began digging undersea tunnels on both sides of the Channel. But the British military became increasingly concerned about national security and the project was abandoned with no further attempts being made for almost a century.

In 1974 work began again on the tunnel, but had to be abandoned shortly afterwards due to financial problems.

Following announcements in 1981 by the French and British governments that a cross-channel link would be explored, private companies were asked to tender for contracts to construct and operate the tunnel link. In early 1986, Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand announced that contracts had been finalised and work finally began in mid 1986.

The two tunnels met on December 1, 1990. Laser-guided surveying techniques meant there was an error margin of just 2 cm.

However, there were then delays, disputes and spiralling costs until the project's completion in 1994.


Much of the original construction of the tunnels was controversial, mainly because the budget was exceeded by many billions of pounds.

The Channel Tunnel also highlighted the shortcomings of the British rail network: Eurostar trains were able to run at speeds of up to 186 mph in France, but they had to travel much more slowly on English rail tracks. The Government authorised a Channel Tunnel Rail Link project to overcome this problem, which in turn attracted widespread controversy over the route to be followed.

In July 2003, a Eurostar train broke the record for the fastest train in the UK, reaching 208 mph during safety testing of Section One of the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link. This section was completed ahead of schedule in December 2003.

However, plans to extend the routes followed by trains using the Channel Tunnel have been slow to get off the ground.

In the late 1990s, a new problem arose. Illegal immigrants were using the tunnel for clandestine passage into the UK from centres in northern France and most notably from Sangatte, where the tunnel opens. A few attempted to walk through the Tunnel or cling to the trains themselves, but most tried to hide in freight containers or trucks using the tunnel. Sangatte has since closed, considerably reducing the use of the Tunnel for illegal immigration.

More recently, the reputation of Eurostar trains was tarnished somewhat in December 2009 when five trains travelling to the UK from Brussels, Paris and Marne-la-Vallée (Disneyland Paris) broke down in the Channel Tunnel. Over 2000 passengers, including babies and children, were trapped for several hours without food, water, or any information about what was happening.

Heavy snowfall was said to be the root cause of the problem. As the trains left the cold air and entered the warm tunnel, the change in humidity caused the electrical systems to fail. An independent review, carried out by former GNER chief executive Christopher Garnett and French transport expert Claude Gressier, published in February 2010, concluded that Eurostar had no plan in place to deal with such a scale of disruption or to help passengers caught up in the delays.

The report made 21 recommendations in three key areas: train reliability; evacuation and rescue; and managing disruption and improving communication. The recommendations should be taken on board and implemented principally by Eurostar, and where relevant by Eurotunnel, or by Eurostar, the report said. Those of a safety nature would need to be monitored ultimately by the Channel Tunnel Intergovernmental Commission.

Another possible controversial issue for those annoyed by mobile phone use on trains is the decision, announced by Eurotunnel in March 2012, to install a mobile telephone service in the Channel Tunnel for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Eurotunnel chairman and chief excutive Jacques Gounon, however, had no doubts about the decision. "The vital link between the UK and France, is proud to commit to this investment which will enable the connection of peoples, nations and cultures in this time of instant communications", he said. "Eurotunnel is sure that enabling mobile communications from below the waves will be an attraction for many customers.”


Eurotunnel, in partnership with the French mobile operators (Bouygues Telecom, Orange SFR and Free),will install a 2G (GSM 900,DCS1800) and 3G (UMTS 2100) GSM-P telephone system which will allow Le Shuttle and high speed passenger train customers to use their mobile telephones inside the Channel Tunnel.

Offering a wi-fi service 100 metres below sea level, to the almost 20 million customers who travel through the 53km of the Channel Tunnel every year is a world first.

Installation cost – €14 million,.

Source: Eurotunnel – March 2012

The Group’s consolidated accounts for the 2011 financial year show a net result for the 2011 financial year to be a profit of €11 million (2010: loss of €58 million).

Revenue for 2011 increased markedly (+16%) to €845 million.

After restatement for inclusion of GBRf’s revenues of €28 million for the first five months of 2010 – this subsidiary having joined the Group at the end of May that year – the consolidated revenue for the Group for 2011 nevertheless increased by 11% (€87 million), as a result of growth in activity for both the Fixed Link and Europorte (€54 million and €33 million respectively).

In 2011 almost 19 million people and approximately 17.7 million tonnes of freight crossed the Channel using the Tunnel.

There was a 2% increase in the number of Eurostar passengers to nearly 9.7 million in 2011.

Source: Eurotunnel – March 2012


“In 2011, the Eurotunnel Group made a clear profit and generated significant cash flows despite the uncertain economic climate. The outlook is positive."

Jacques Gounon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Groupe Eurotunnel SA  – February 2012